Sorry, gang, you don’t get a summer.
But The Old Newsman can help you out. He was there once. So here is your homework for the summer. And a lot of it can be done at a pool or sports bar. So stay with me.
Fact No. 1:
Your staff will let you down. They don’t mean to, and it won’t happen all the time or even all that often. But it will. And your job is to help those who don’t make it a habit.
Section editors will tell you it is a slow news week. They have nothing. “Can I have a house ad?” It is coming.
Solution No. 1:
Be ready with suggestions.
Check the calendar and your paper’s archives. Are there anniversaries coming up? Faculty members hitting 5-year, 10-year, etc. milestones are great feature opportunities.
Look for trend stories based on the staples you already have to do. Enrollment story? Check. Trend story comparing previous years’ enrollment and enrollment at similar institutions. Not so obvious, but a better read and a better clip for the reporter.
Identify five or six enterprise stories for the semester and assign them in week one with staggered deadlines. This gives you editorial content punch on the slowest weeks. I know you want a jump-start here, so here are some possibilities.
- Conduct an analysis of student government expenditures/allocations over the past three years.
- Determine the top-paid individuals in academic, administrative and staff departments. Compare that to national and state data.
- Profile the physical plant department of your institution. Key personnel. Budgets. They provide infrastructure support for schools and often get their resources cut first. And they often have great stories.
Fact No. 2:
Dailies react. Weeklies plan.
Solution No. 2:
Don’t look at the now and stop there. Look at the “what’s next?” About three dozen of my students are nodding and saying “Here we go again.” Fine. It is worth repeating.
Imagine a fall sport coach is fired in mid-May. What is the effect on recruiting? Summer camps? Why this timing? Does the university owe them a payout? What does their contract say? This just happened at Missouri Southern State University yesterday.
And know the calendar. But don’t be a slave to events.
Events are important. But think about this one. You have a regularly scheduled fall speaker series. Cover the event. Preview and recap. But why not look at the series’ history? Why not request contracts that show honorariums, etc.?
And how about the theater department plays? Preview. But also review. Opening night reviews online and a review in print. But features about leading actors, stage managers and directors really can make your coverage sing.
It’s on the calendar. Plan for it.
Fact No. 3:
Your editorial page probably kinda sucks.
Solution No. 3:
Sorry about that one. Kinda.
How do you make your editorial page rock? Add more opinions. Different opinions. From a lot of sources.
Dedicate one column per week for a guest. An administrator. A faculty member. A coach. An alumnus. A city official.
And schedule them before the semester starts. And think about the timing and the author. Wouldn’t the alumni director love a chance to address the campus the week before homecoming? Get your guest columnists slotted early and make deadlines clear.
Letters to the editor are rare these days. Guest columnists can make your opinion section a true public forum and not just a venue for staff to vent. Admit it. That isn’t off the mark.
Print online comments on stories. Show in print what your readers are thinking.
Visit the art department and hire a cartoonist. A real one. Political cartooning is as old as the republic and is an art form onto itself. A good political/editorial cartoonist can take the grey out of the editorial section. Use them to illustrate not only editorials but other content as well. At Missouri Southern during the 2008 presidential election, we did pieces on the “minor” candidates that included large characiatures. Another time, our artist did a large color illustration for a column. We never before had paid for color on the editorial pages. It was that good. Took a first place award, too.
Fact No. 4
The first edition of the year (almost) always sucks.
Solution No. 4
This is almost always the result of a new staff combined with a short timeline piled on top of nothing happening yet.
Fair enough. But you can lessen the potential suckitude.
How? Glad you asked, Grasshopper. (Just Google it. Kids.)
Plan your sections and identify a centerpiece story for each. Plan and identify good art for each of these centerpiece stories. Now you have a focus for each section and one guaranteed good package for each. These can be planned and assigned well in advance.
Here are some examples:
Front: Back to school story. Don’t yawn. Can be the complete guide to [insert campus/town]. This could be a visual masterpiece in the right creative hands. I can only imagine how the staff of the Indiana Daily Student would hit this out of the park.
Features: Moving Day. Could be a story on creative dorm room decoration. Could be a story on a freshman’s first move-in. Could be a photo page. Could be all three. Could be a slideshow. A video package. An award winner.
Editorial: Guest columns from the university president and student government president. Column by the new/returning EIC. First-person columns by an incoming freshman packaged with a first-person column by a senior. (NOT on staff)
Sports: Features on top returning fall sport seniors (Men and women. Can be repeated in spring. Isn’t that convenient?) New faces — top recruits and new coaches. Sports column about the (campus) year to come in fall sports.
That’s just what an old guy in a sports bar came up with in five minutes (and decades of experience). Imagine if you got your staff together and really brainstormed. Don’t wait. August will be here before you know it.